Poker Champs Play the Sponsorship Game

The World Series of Poker in Las Vegas this year wasn't just about the game; it was also about lucrative sponsorships.
The World Series of Poker in Las Vegas this year wasn't just about the game; it was also about lucrative sponsorships.

While covering this year's World Series of Poker main event, a 7,319-player tournament with a first prize of $8,944,138, I spotted the rather anonymous pro Steve McLaughlin. He was seated next to Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan, a 10-time WSOP champion who is widely regarded as one of the best players in the game. Additionally, Chan achieved nonpoker fame with a flashy cameo in the movie Rounders.

Ordinarily, Chan is an undesirable guy to play into. But McLaughlin didn't mind at all. He patted the lapel of his sport jacket, upon which was affixed a patch with the logo for the online poker site PokerStars. Chan gets a lot of TV exposure when ESPN tapes this tournament and, inadvertently, so does the player next to him. To leach off of The Orient Express's fame, PokerStars offered McLaughlin an entry-level one-day sponsorship deal. "Johnny did me a big favor," says McLaughlin. "[PokerStars] gave me $5,000 and slapped a logo on me."

When you see players sporting logos for online poker sites, you can rest assured that they're not doing it for free. And while $5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, it's a pittance compared to many of the other sponsorship deals that get thrown around at the main event, which takes place each July inside the Rio Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, owned by Harrah's Entertainment.

Become one of the so-called November Nine -- the tournament's final table of players, who compete in November, after a publicity-generating hiatus -- and you're likely to receive a sponsorship bonus worth $250,000. Win the main event and you can expect upwards of $1 million, plus a major sponsorship deal that, according to an insider, "puts you into a position to play poker for the rest of your life as a sponsored player." This means that you can make a handsome living as a poker pro without needing to win a whole lot of money playing poker.

Betting on the Gamblers

The high stakes, both for the players and the sponsors, has made the sponsorship process anything but lighthearted. "World War III" is the term that one poker agent uses to describe the battle to wrangle and sign players during the 2010 Series. Indeed, by the time the field had been distilled down to 42 players, 40 of them had already been scooped up for sponsorship deals and two were still holding out for more money. (One wound up going with PokerStars and the other went with FullTiltPoker.)

Why are the sites so eager to make these high-rent deals? "If one of our players gets to the final table, it generates a ton of business for us," says Paul Leggett, CEO of (aka UltimateBet), which is the third-largest site that accepts buy-ins from American players. "We get multiple weeks of exposure and hype from July until November [when the final table gets played and a winner emerges]."

This year, one of the UB-sponsored players made it to No. 12 before getting eliminated. Right now, none of the final table contenders are wearing UB's logo, but sponsorship situations can change quickly. Leggett learned that lesson last year, when UB scored a deal with Joe Cada -- who famously went on to win the main event -- before he'd made the November Nine, only to lose him to PokerStars by the time he played at the final table. "He left us because PokerStars outbid us," says Leggett. "PokerStars picked up Joe with an extraordinary contract, in excess of $1 million and probably multiple millions of dollars over some years."

Though this clearly sounds like a lot of money to pay a formerly unknown 21-year-old kid who happens to have gotten good at poker, when you pencil out the numbers, generous sponsorship deals make some sense. "You have 2.4 million people watching the final table, and all of them want to be the guy who wins it," says a poker agent who asks to remain anonymous but estimates that each conversion to a site is worth an average of $300. "They want to know where to go to be this guy. And the message is clear: Go to the logo that this guy is wearing."